What defined a pre-dreadnought battleship? It was, first and foremost, a capital ship, mounting the largest guns and toughest armor its navy could afford, and fully capable of maneuvering in the line of battle against any antagonist's battlefleet. Of the many hundreds of steam warships that were built, more than 175 could be considered pre-dreadnought battleships. The pre-dreadnought era is usually defined as from about 1890 to around 1906.
A pre-dreadnought battleship was a steamship of this time, built of steel, with a great ram beak at the bow for puncturing enemy ships below the waterline (although seldom used, this was a nearly universal convention). Driven by piston steam engines, powered by coal-fired boilers, the pre-dreadnought was generally propelled by twin or triple screws. Its sides were layered, in complex and varying patterns, with steel armor, and its gun positions and key interior spaces were separately protected, sometimes with armor a foot thick or more, although 9 to 11 inches was more usual.
At left, artist's conception of Admiral Togo and staff in the conning tower during action, c. 1904. Telephones and telegraphs allow the commanders to control the ship, while slits in the conning tube theoretically permit them to see all round. In the event, Togo opted out of the confines of this armored tube during the critial Battle of Tsushima in 1905, preferring to make his observations and issue his orders from his well-sandbagged open air bridge. You can walk that bridge today, not far from Tokyo: Togo's flagship Mikasa, a close cousin of the Glory, is preserved as a museum ship in the port of Yokosuka.
The pre-dreadnought was armed with many sizes of gun, from the main armament -- 50-foot-long 12-inch guns (305 mm), effective up to five miles -- to the secondary batteries used to beat up an opponent's topsides, to the 3" and 1" guns used to fend off attack by lightning-swift torpedo boats, to the light antipersonnel weapons intended for crowd control or close-in combat. And the pre-dreadnought carried a limited number of big guns: usually three or four, compared to a Dreadnought battleship, which mounted at least ten 12-inch guns. Lastly, the pre-dreadnought carried a full complement of 18-inch Whitehead torpedoes -- Glory had four submerged tubes to launch her "tin fish" forward, aft, or from either beam -- or 45 cm in metric. There is no record of a battleship sinking an enemy craft with torpedoes; in such gun-reliant craft torpedoes were perhaps not highly regarded, although some defensive measures were adopted. Electric searchlights mounted on masts and funnels could illuminate torpedo attackers at night for gunners on the abundant 12-pdr 1-inch guns, light machine guns and 6-pounders studded all around the ship.
To protect against incoming torpedoes, the battleship was equipped with a "net boom defence" -- a steel-link net suspended from booms which would surround the ship's underwater hull when anchored. Sadly, when war came in 1914, the Germans neutralized this elaborate and expensive defense by simply equipping their torpedoes with razor-sharp cutters on the nose. But the ranks of obliquely angled booms along the hull were an arresting feature of the battleship's appearance through 1915 -- a detail without which no model or historical painting would be fully authentic.
During the period of our study, the Germans mounted a spirited challenge to British supremacy at sea. From being well behind in the 1890s, the Kaiser's fleet came close to matching Britain's by 1915. As our extensive financial data and blow-by-blow narrative of the pre-WWI arms race reveal, the naval competition proved an alarming drain on the finances of both countries. But then, imperialism and navalism were part of the air one breathed in the Nineties and the Edwardian era. The jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt in the same period merely mirrored fashionable thinking in Europe.
Britain led the way in the last years of Queen Victoria, its lavish outlay for smart new battlehips affirming the government's allegiance to the cult of the Invincible Ironclad. While there were vocal pacifist groups in Britain, navalism was virtually an article of faith, permeating state policy and ideology. The pacifists had no discernible influence on policy in this area; the real action was in the jockeying for power between different factions in Britain's naval establishment. In Britain from 1889 forward and in Germany from 1898 on, restraint in procurement was rapidly thrown to the winds. In Germany naval building was financed at first by reckless borrowing, which led to repeated financial crises and political instability. The huge cost of dreadnoughts to outpace Germany's construction strained British finances and technical resources.
Here is an actual photo of the object of our study. Seen above leaving Chatham, the Glory was a typical British pre-dreadnought, commissioned at the apogee of the British Empire in 1900, one of the 53 pre-dreadnought battleships on the Royal Navy's roster, most of them designed by the prolific and long-running Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White. Glory belonged to the Canopus class of light battleships intended principally for colonial service (China station) but capable of reinforcing the Channel Fleet or Mediterranean Fleet -- or any other -- at will. The Glory and her five sisters are described in detail on our Canopus class page. For a cutaway view of the inner workings of a German battleship of the same time, click here.
FLASH! Late Report from BBB's bean counters: If one includes the semi-dreadnought ships, our total of pre-dreadnought battleships vaults to 191.
Depiction of the complexity of a battleship: Detail from an inboard profile of the German battleship Wittelsbach of 1900. This fantastic Querschnitt was executed in fanatical Germanic detail by Georg Grünberg of Kiel. Boilers, engines, triple screws, and aft 9.4" turret are among the systems shown in this detail. Click to view entire diagram, or to view native size plan with all 94 call-outs neatly listed in Fraktur Gothic fcript.